On Value Propositions

Besides wading through tiresome, groundless hype regarding Apple’s apparent “lack” of a netbook in its lineup (huh, MacBook Air, anyone?), I’ve been mulling the echoes of the MacBook revamps, which have also left a fresh trail of hysteria and lust.

Like I wrote earlier, the combination of a 24” screen and a MacBook would fit my current needs just fine, but I’m not up for buying one anytime soon – I’m far more likely to pick up a Cinema Display (or equivalent, in the 22-24” range) to turn my black MacBook into a photo sorting station and hand my “G5“Tiger over to family, since it’s woefully underused these days.

Regretfully, I don’t have the time to do much photography with my current career and family obligations, but I think such an arrangement would be just fine for a year or so.

As to the MacBooks themselves, well, they’re an amazing piece of craftsmanship. Having dealt with CNC many years ago, I’d say that there is a heck of a lot of work involved in working out how to cut and file every little detail of the unibody, and that the QA associated with making sure the process works consistently must be pretty intense.

Apple is positioning them as the best-designed laptops (they) ever made, and they may well have a point there. As to the internals, I have only glossed over the specs but I bet that the old approach of doing a part-by-part comparison with equivalent machines (always a challenge due to lack of parity among contenders) will also show that they’re well worth the price in features alone1.

The thing is, design sells, and by design I don’t mean just looks. The new MacBooks are not “just” computers, in the sense that they’re the kind of crafted object people lust after. And yes, the pricing strategy (with the sole plastic model on the bottom and a much better looking one positioned just slightly above that) is sure to help Apple sell them by the truckloads.

But my point is that they’re squarely aimed to the people who care about both build quality and looks, and they don’t just buck the trend of crummy materials in laptops of all kinds to stand out. In my view, they are also a salvo to counter the complaints of decline in their build quality.

In the heyday of IBM, people craved the Thinkpads because they were solidly built and well designed (for the time, of course). They were the epitome of the tough-as-nails portable computer, and many people still look to Lenovo in hope that they can live up to those expectations2.

Today, people with the same mindset will be drawn to the new MacBooks. They will pay the premium (if any) over other laptops, in mostly the same way they’d pay extra for a better car (or, in many cases, for a better-looking one).

And the “I wanna cheap netbook” crowd can go and suck it up, for all Apple cares. It’s not where they want to be, because it’s not a sustainable offering – “cheap” is not something they want associated with the Apple brand, and Jobs’s comments about $500 computers that look like junk (despite currently being discussed as emanations from his Reality Distortion Field or, alternatively, as an implied death sentence for the Mini) are perfectly aligned with their value proposition.

They might do cheap (in some segments), but they will go out of their way to avoid making it seem cheap. And netbooks these days are too associated with cheapskates for Apple to go there.

1 Regardless of what some people may say about the lack of Firewire, it won’t affect consmers one whit – it was hardly relevant from the moment USB 2.0 became prevalent (remember the iPod transition?)

2 Which, apparently, they haven’t, but that is something I won’t go into tonight. And having seen the current top tier corporate Dell laptops only today, I’d say Apple trounces them soundly in build quality as well.